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Entertainment / Fatwah / April 11, 2010


Of course it goes without saying that you don’t watch Glee, you couldn’t care less about Glee, you wouldn’t touch Glee with a stick. It’s a teen musical on TV, for Christ’s sake, there could hardly be anything lamer than that. Even gibbering fans of this series acknowledge its lameness by calling themselves Gleeks.

But Glee’s now a cultural phenomenon, and hard to ignore. After one season, its soundtracks are best-sellers and its songs are much downloaded. Its cast got invited to perform at the White House Easter Egg Roll because the Obamas are big fans, and then they went on Oprah. Done deal! Now every known music performer and band in the world wants to have their songs covered on Glee, which has already taken on Kanye West, Katy Perry, the Rolling Stones, Beyonce, Rihanna…and coming up there’s Madonna, Lady Gaga, Coldplay…

This madness is only going to get bigger once the show’s second season starts this Tuesday. If you aren’t Glee-conscious already, pretty soon you’ll be hearing about it whether you want to or not. Here’s a fun fact to help you through it: Glee is a blatant rip-off of the great 1999 movie Election. And for some reason, nobody mentions it.


You remember Election. An annihilating satire of the American experience, Election has never really been equaled for sheer truth-telling about the crushing awfulness of high school, which sets us up for the rotten lives we’re going to live thereafter. Election features a grotesque ensemble of recognizable types. Matthew Broderick gives the performance of a lifetime as the pasty, doughy, dweeby high school teacher, Jim McAllister, who lies to himself about being a committed educator but at the faintest opportunity will sell out every supposed value for sex, revenge, and escape from his crappy job and car and clothes and marriage.

election SPLASH

His nemesis is the immortal Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon, who’ll never top this), a chillingly horrible high school overachiever driven on by her neurotic mother to scary depths of blank-eyed, can-do ruthlessness. Chris Klein was plucked out of the Omaha high school world where the film is set to play the big clueless jock Paul Metzler, everybody’s pawn. He’s set up by McAllister to run against Tracy Flick in the election for high school class president. Then his cynical lesbian sister Tammy (Jennifer Campbell) throws her hat in the ring to spite Paul after Paul unwittingly steals Tammy’s nasty hypocritical girlfriend. In the end, Tammy alone figures out the idiocy of the system and engineers her own triumphant escape from it. Everybody else is doomed to play out the horrifying scenarios set in stone in high school.


These four characters provide competing voice-over accounts of their cut-throat election battle. Well, Glee steals three of those four main characters, plus the competitive-voice-over device that reveals all of their self-serving rationalizations for rotten deeds. Instead of an election there’s a series of glee club competitions, and the constant attempts to sabotage them by sociopathic cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester (take-no-prisoners comic actor Jane Lynch).

But Glee makes everyone prettier and sweeter in that way TV generally does, and works to guarantee them all redemption and happy endings. Matthew Morrison, as dedicated high school teacher Will Shuester, drives to work in a rusty car dragging its muffler, similar to the sad little compact driven by Matthew Broderick’s character, but when he gets out he’s tall and handsome and gym-toned and grinning, and boy, can he bust a move, like some kind of freakish latter-day Gene Kelly. He looks like a Broadway musical star because he was one, in Hairspray. He does McAllister-esque deeds, like blackmailing football quarterback Finn Hudson (Cory Monteith) into joining glee club by planting pot in his locker and then threatening to have him busted him for drug possession, but this is handled cutely with many bleatings of remorse on the soundtrack. Also like McAllister, Will’s got a pathetically terrible marriage to a mean user, and a small, pinched life, but you can see plainly that there’s no way he’s doomed to continue it.


Another Broadway star (Spring Awakenings), Lea Michelle, plays the Tracy Flick equivalent, the abrasively ambitious Rachel Berry, who signs her name with an affixed gold star because, as she says in her Election-esque voice-over, “Metaphors are important, and this is a metaphor for me, being a star.” (Not bad, line-wise!) There are even shots of Rachel in her absurd preppy clothes, knee socks and so on, striding forward through empty high school hallways, that are direct thefts from Election.


Cory Monteith plays Finn, the naïve big-lug jock, and he looks enough like Chris Klein to be his cousin. They’re both as galumphing as St. Bernard puppies, with dairy-fresh white boy skin and soft, wide-open faces. He too is a perfect sexual dupe of cunning teenage females like his girlfriend, head cheerleader Quinn Fabray (Dianna Argon), who’s both president of the Chastity Club and secretly pregnant with the baby of Finn’s best friend, Puck (Mark Salling). Well, not “secretly” for long.

But instead of the savvy lesbian sister Tammy, there’s Kurt Hummel (Chris Colfer), a cosmopolitan gay kid who’s forming his plans to “get out of this cowtown.” Tammy arranged her own deliverance by staying in the closet and getting herself “punished” by being transferred to a Catholic girls’ school, where she’ll not only get a decent education but also, presumably, a lesbian cornucopia. But Glee’s Kurt has the more traditional TV-type coming-out, full of suspense and hugs and tears and affirmation.

A lot is made of the Glee location—Lima, Ohio—as a dead-end loser town full of uneducated going-nowhere heartland hicks, and the slim odds of our little band of heroes ever arriving at a better place in life. This worthy premise is directly contradicted by the casting of powerhouse talent in all the major roles, many of them beautiful, all of them super-dynamos. This is a musical tradition, if you’ve ever watched musicals. You know, young Judy Garland playing a supposedly plain little mouse nobody expects much of, except she’s got the lung capacity of Seabiscuit and she could sing anybody off the stage from age ten on, and she could dance, and act, and she practically vibrated with performing energy, and blah blah blah. Supposedly the Glee creators auditioned half the world looking for insane levels of talent, so everybody in this fictional Loserville is a singing-dancing-emoting star.


The cast of the show also makes Lima, Ohio look like the most diverse town in the USA, with everybody fully represented: whites, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Latinos, Indians, Jews, gays, the wheelchair-bound, the deaf, the whole Family of Man. There are a lot of reflexive jokes made about this in the show. (“You look like the world’s worst Benneton ad.”) They’re necessary, because this doesn’t look like anyplace in Ohio I’ve been, though maybe Ohio has changed recently. I hope so, for Ohio’s sake.


It’s pretty fascinating to watch, the slippery way the show balances out its hopeless contradictions. They borrow the authenticity of Election’s savage satire to ground the revival of the fantasy wish-fulfillment of the traditional musical. Every time it gets too saccharine, they subvert it with a dose of furious black humor. Then when it cuts too close to the bone, they do a big uplifting number like their signature tune, Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” and everybody hugs, or exchanges warm supportive looks of the kind that are never seen in high school, anywhere in the USA.

It’s impressive, really—makes you think the old Hollywood showbiz craftiness survived, after all.

Of course, it doesn’t sound like it would work. In fact, according to accounts that came out around the time the show premiered on Fox, there was a general consensus that it was going to land with a dull thud. Supposedly the original concept came from screenwriter Ian Brennan, who wanted to see a film made about his experience as a member of show choir; Ryan Murphy, Nip/Tuck writer-producer, had been in show choir himself once and brought in Brad Falchuck to help him rewrite the whole thing for TV. So they claim authenticity, especially in the face of early accusations that the whole thing is just a rip-off of High School Musical.

But it’s not. It’s a musical rip-off of Election. I wonder if anyone bothered to pay off Alexander Payne?


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Add your own

  • 1. wengler  |  April 11th, 2010 at 2:36 pm

    Yep, it’s a rip-off. Welcome to television.

    It’s a clever rip-off however, with its mostly boring musical scores being balanced out by good humor and the incomparable Jane Lynch. Her Cheerleader Coach character makes the show.

    If you record it and fast-forward through the commercials it’s a pretty funny half-hour. Not nearly as funny as Election of course, but it’s TV.

  • 2. paul cripps  |  April 11th, 2010 at 4:20 pm

    most of television is a ripoff.but do not blame tv producers for not doing an election type series, as they know that there bottom of the bell curve audiance,the majority of us citizens,would simply not be able to cope with the irony and satire of the movie ,election. once again its an extremely fucked public education system,now that would make a great tv series that hardly anyone would watch.

  • 3. Max  |  April 11th, 2010 at 4:36 pm

    Ridiculous comparison. Highschool is such a microcosm, all fiction based upon it bears a semblance. You’re probably better off drawing a comparison between Glee and Grease. At least they both have musical numbers…

  • 4. 16 Shells from a 30.06  |  April 11th, 2010 at 5:50 pm

    “scary depths of blank-eyed, can-do ruthlessness”

    I think I’m in love…

  • 5. basedrop  |  April 11th, 2010 at 10:47 pm

    Next you’re going to suggest that “House” is just a rip off of the Sherlock Holmes series of books.

  • 6. zot23  |  April 12th, 2010 at 6:58 am

    I dare the author to find one work these days not based on a previous work. Hell, find one murder drama not connected to a Shakespeare play. Impossible.

    It’s not what it’s based on, it’s what it does with the material itself. Lion King was a blatant rip off of Hamlet, so what? My kids still loved it.

    Go ahead, try to find something ‘original’ that is also AAA material. Have fun searching…

  • 7. Gustavo Arellano  |  April 12th, 2010 at 8:15 am

    Wow! You finally have convinced me to see…Election.

  • 8. RecoverylessRecovery  |  April 12th, 2010 at 11:05 am

    “But Glee’s now a cultural phenomenon, and hard to ignore.”

    In the U.S. nowadays, even NOSE-PICKING is considered a ‘cultural’ phenomenon. Due mainly to the FACT that Americans HAVE NO CULTURE.

    Besides, the rest of the world would MUCH rather watch teenage Americans getting their legs blown-off in Afghanistan & Iraq.

  • 9. Kat  |  April 12th, 2010 at 11:49 am

    I liked Election, but how ’bout some props for Fast Times at Ridgemnont High? I think it covered the awfulness of highs school well too.

  • 10. Graham C  |  April 12th, 2010 at 4:57 pm

    The ‘truth’ that Election tells:

    Middle class people are either morons (Mr. McAllister) or bitchy, castrating social climbers (Tracy).

    The only good people in the world are rich lesbians who complain about the public education system and don’t strive for anything except finding a romantic partner, because they already have everything else. (Tammy.)

    The fact that nobody ever seems to notice this speaks volumes about how dead class consciousness is in America today.

  • 11. Graham C  |  April 12th, 2010 at 4:59 pm

    Also, something more germane: No, Ohio hasn’t changed.

    Here are the demographics for Lima in 2000:

    White: 69.3%
    Black: 26.5%
    <b.Asian: 0.5%
    Hispanic: 2.0%

  • 12. Sarah  |  April 14th, 2010 at 8:07 am

    I agree so much. Finn IS Paul Metzler. Rachel IS Tracy Flick The Jim/Will comparison is probably more of a stretch, but there are similarities. I can’t even watch Glee because the comparisons are so striking. But then again, I have seen Election way too many times.

    I’ve been wondering why no one has mentioned it either, and the only reason I can figure is no one remembers Election as well as we do. Or the people who have seen Election are not the kind of people who would watch Glee.

  • 13. 05girl  |  April 19th, 2010 at 10:35 am

    YES! Finally! Apparently none of my other glee watching friends have seen Election. It’s such a BLATANT rip off of the tracy flick and paul characters! Sure, there are plenty of overachieving high school characters, but how many dress uber school girl preppy, talk/think in this certain way, etc.

    Drives me crazy… my fam loved Election for its uniqueness so the fact that they copy those voice overs and the characters have some of the same quirky motivations takes away from Glee for me. The voice overs in Glee aren’t even used that consistently which is unnerving for me. Even some of the humor in Glee reminds me of Election.

    Who knows, maybe one of the writers/creators are linked to Election some way.

  • 14. FrankMcG  |  April 19th, 2010 at 9:56 pm

    I always thought Election was fine up until the end where it got a little TOO brutal. The whole thing should have been about how ridiculous High School is, but the stuff with Broderick’s attempted affair was just cringe inducing. The stakes were raised too high when in fact the conflict of his super teacher reputation and his desire to crush Witherspoon were enough.

  • 15. keggers  |  April 23rd, 2010 at 1:55 pm

    Now now now. Wait a minute.

    “Election,” yeah. Definitely. But you’re forgetting another show I always wanted to hurt very, very badly:


    This is also “Fame” as well. Geez, anyone over 40 around here?

    Anyway, it’s all bullshit. To expect American TV to be anything but a cultural pit toilet is folly.

    What’s worse that this show are all the fucking nits I have to deal with who talk about it all the time. Lives = meaningless.

    High school, in general, should be portrayed being strafed by helicopter gunships.

    That is all.

  • 16. DOPEaddict  |  April 26th, 2010 at 3:17 pm

    @recoverylessrecovery: I’d rather watch teenage Americans masturbate (18 or over, of course.) Hell, I’d rather watch ME masturbate.

  • 17. GARY  |  April 29th, 2010 at 11:28 pm

    tracy flick is one of the scariest people in hollywood history

  • 18. jay dee  |  May 15th, 2010 at 4:56 am

    Is Obama Tracy Flick?

    “Politics is high school with more money and guns.”
    Frank Zappa

  • 19. Makeda  |  May 17th, 2010 at 1:38 pm

    I agree with the reviewer I immediately thought of election after watching the 1st 10 mins of Glee, it’s good but nowhere near the movie. the guy who plays Finn looks like Chris Klien a lot.

  • 20. Saeed Manley  |  May 17th, 2010 at 11:49 pm

    I am a huge Glee fan and never even heard of the movie Elections before I started watching the show. But I just happened to come across the movie one night and as soon as I heard the overview of Tracy’s character in the beginning of the movie and heard the voice over, I knew Rachel Berry’s character had to have been taken from this movie. I mean, Tracy even signed her name with a star. While Tracy seems to have been transplanted directly into the cast of glee and reincarnated as Rachel, the show’s plots seem to be different enough from the Elections to hold the attention of fans of this movie. . . that is if they are interested in the whole musical aspect of the show.

  • 21. AM2010  |  August 3rd, 2010 at 5:44 pm

    I am a huge Glee fan, and I’ve been saying from the very first epsiode that this tv show is Election meets Freaks and Geeks!

  • 22. Maria  |  November 26th, 2011 at 9:57 pm

    Saying that TV is un-original doesn’t negate the writer’s point – Glee is Election re-done. The first episode – I thought it was meant to be obvious – but then, things diverged a little. Election was wickedly awkward whereas Glee is more like a fluffy version of adolescence. And, I agree that t Finn IS Paul:) I REALLY wonder what the writer of Election thinks??!!

  • 23. Kevin  |  September 30th, 2014 at 2:29 pm

    After watching Election, I Google “Is Glee based on Election?” Enough said.

  • 24. Joe  |  March 22nd, 2016 at 10:34 am

    Except for the fact that Lea Michele very early on said she based Rachel on Tracey FLcik.

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